It seems so blatantly unfair, doesn’t it? Even unjust.
Jesus tells this story of a vineyard owner who had fields that needed tending.
Early in the morning, the vintner goes to that place where day laborers gather to find job opportunities and finds a group eager to secure employment.
They negotiate pay – actually, the text tells us that the landowner agrees to the demands of the union of laborers for the day’s work – and they head out to the vineyards.
Around 9 a.m., the landowner goes back to the marketplace and finds another group standing around waiting for work and sends them also out in the vineyard, promising them to pay what is fair.
The same thing happens at noon and again at 3 p.m.
Coming back around 5 p.m., the vintner finds still another group idling the time away. He asks them why they are just standing around, and they explain that they’ve been waiting for a chance to work.
So he sends them to the vineyard as well – the fifth contingent sent at different times of the day.
When the workday is over, the landowner tells his manager to gather all the workers together to receive their pay but stipulates that those who started work last be paid first and the earliest workers paid last.
Following the landowner’s instructions, the manager pays the group that has worked only an hour or so the full day’s pay – that is, what had been negotiated with the earliest group as a fair wage.
Same with those who went into the fields at 3 in the afternoon, at noon and at 9 in the morning.
Finally, the group that had worked all day got to the front of the line, only to find that they were receiving exactly what everyone else got paid.
Almost immediately, they started to moan and groan: “These last worked only one hour, for goodness sake, and yet you have made them equal to us who have slaved away all day in the scorching heat. It’s blatantly unfair. It’s simply not just.”
The vintner replies to the representative of the grumbling group (the union steward in our lingo): “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; didn’t we agree on this very wage that you demanded? So take what is rightly yours and all of you go.”
The text doesn’t say so, but we can imagine that the union rep tries to object and argue the justice of the case, but the vintner raises his hand to put an end to the complaint, saying: “It’s my decision to give everyone – whether they labored long or only a short time – the same payment. Am I not allowed to pay what is mine, so long as I live up to what we’ve agreed to?”
Well, we probably say, the vintner may be technically correct, but it just doesn’t seem right.
And then to think that this is how Jesus describes the nature of the Kingdom of God, the character of the reign of God that is breaking into history!
The way the Gospel writer Matthew drafts and edits this story from the oral and written materials he has received makes it a little more palatable: by casting the vintner’s decision either as an act of generosity, under what we might call a theology of divine grace, or as an instance of Jesus’ teaching about the first being last and the last being first.
(“Are you envious,” the text reads, “because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”)
Or could there be another interpretation of the story? Did the union rep, intentionally or not, get it right when he said, “you have made them equal to us”?
Here the issue of fairness or justice is not determined by how long or briefly the laborers worked.
Here the issue of fairness or justice is what laborers need in order to meet the demands of life – their own, their family’s or any others committed to their care.
All of the laborers wanted to work, sought it out, waited for the chance to do it. And once they found it, according to this rendering of the story, they deserved – as a matter of fairness and justice – to be paid what they needed.
That’s a story and an interpretation that would seem to have particular relevance at a time when, over the past decade, almost half (47 percent) of the entire income in the United States has gone to the top 20 percent of income earners.
When, during that same period, child poverty increased by 18 percent and food insecurity rose to one in four children in the nation.
When the number of uninsured people has risen to an all-time high – 50.7 million people – and when the nation has experienced the largest jump in the uninsured since 1987.
When the unemployment rate in the nation remains at 9.1 percent (14 million seeking employment) and at 16.7 percent for African-Americans.
When, to quote the New York Times: “Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it.”
It’s a time, that is, when Americans and their political leaders need to ponder a biblically informed understanding of such a defining principle of American life as equality.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.